"If you're white, how come you care so much about teaching Black history?"

Reflections on Youth-Led Inquiry into Race and Racism (Part 2)

It was late Friday afternoon, and I was at school still. I was working on our bulletin board. Two of our students were helping out. As I stapled a heading above their work, one of them asked, "Mr. Brosbe, no offense, but if you're white, how come you care so much about teaching Black history?" I paused to think about where to start.

"First of all, you don't need to say, 'No offense.' I'm white. Some white people might be sensitive about it, but that's their problem, not yours.

"But, why do I think it's important for us to learn Black history? Well, I don't think there's anyone in our class who identifies as white. So I think you all deserve to learn about your history. Also, there are more Black and brown people in the world, so if you want to understand the world, you need to know Black history. Lastly, Black people literally built this country. So..."

At this point, her best friend chimed in, "If Black people built everything, why do white people think they're better than Black people?"

"These are great questions. That's what we're going to try to figure out in Global Connections (our social studies curriculum)."

I left the interaction excited, but with a lot to think about. First of all, I felt like the conversation validated my reasons for planning a unit on the history of race and racism with my co-teacher. I want to teach this unit because I think it's history that kids need to learn. I also consider teaching this history a part of disrupting racism in our classroom. But, I also know that our students are interested in this history. So, beyond the anti-bias goals of this unit, I think it's also building our students' engagement in their learning.

I don't remember these two kids ever coming up to me outside of class to ask a question about making inferences or adding mixed numbers. But here they were, with lots of questions about our new unit of study. This tells me we're on the right track.

Another reflection I have from these early days of these conversations is about my role as a white teacher. I am realizing I have to be more proactive in thinking about how I talk about whiteness, white people, my own white racial identity, and how these conversations will impact my relationship with my students. I do believe they're reading to talk about race and racism. And I think that we'll have to make space for the feelings that come in these conversations.

One idea provided by my partner, Megan, is to highlight a few cases of white allyship. I think this will be super valuable so that the kids can understand that white people can choose and have chosen to fight against racism alongside people of color. I'm thinking about teaching about John Brown and the Freedom Riders.

Moving forward I want to make sure I'm preparing my students for their future interactions with white teachers. I do not intend this as a self-congratulatory statement, but more an observation: It is uncommon for white teachers to have conversations about race with students. I want my kids to understand this country's history, but I don't want to set them up to be targeted by teachers in their future who may have thin skins around these topics.

I know based on the conversations happening already that I'm excited to move forward. I know that I also need to continue to be intentional about my role as a white teacher in this unit of study.


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